Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall has actually been adapted for the BBC twice, but the 1968 version is not available. Heck, even this version, from 1996, was not available in the US until 2008. I bought it last year but before that I had a version from the Netherlands- English with Dutch subtitles. Apparently it wasn’t even on DVD in the UK yet! This version is a three part miniseries which has some pretty famous actors in it- just pictured are Toby Stephens as Gilbert Markham, Tara Fitzgerald as Helen Huntingdon, and Rupert Graves as Arthur Huntingdon. Many of the supporting cast are also big names or at least well-known in period dramas- Pam Ferris as Mrs. Markham, Paloma Baeza (Hetta Carbury from The Way We Live Now) as Rose Markham, James Purefoy as Frederick Lawrence, and Dominic Rowan (Mr. Elton from Beckinsale Emma) as Lord Lowborough, for example.
Despite the cast, this adaptation doesn’t seem to be that well-known. At least, it’s not up there with any of Jane Austen, Dickens, or other Bronte adaptations. Part of this may be because it was so hard to get until recently but I think it’s mostly because Anne Bronte and the book itself aren’t that popular in comparison with the other classic authors I listed. It’s a real shame, because the book is so brilliant and this version is also really good.
Helen and little Arthur Escape
The series changes the structure of the novel somewhat. We begin with Helen as she flees with her son in the early morning to Wildfell Hall-so we know right away that she is not what she seems. There are also flashbacks throughout that can be kind of confusing. Then, the end timeline is fudged with a bit. Gilbert has not yet finished reading the diary when he finds out that Helen has gone back to her husband. I was so confused- I thought they just cut the rest out! But then Gilbert finishes reading it and it made sense. Still, I wasn’t a fan of the change!
Helen keeping Gilbert away
I have to say I wasn’t that fond of Tara Fitzgerald as Helen. I do think she’s a fine actress, but she’s not how I pictured Helen. For one, she sounds like she smokes a pack a day. This was especially jarring in the flashback diary scenes to when Helen was young and naive. Way out of place! And in the later scenes, she is a bit too cold. Helen in the book was afraid to let people get too close to her because of her bad experience and fear of being found out. But Tara Fitzgerald just takes it too far. It’s kind of hard to see why Gilbert falls for her. Also, this is shallow, but she had a really unflattering hairstyle for most of the series.
I simply do not have enough good things to say about Toby Stephens as Gilbert, though! First of all, his ruggedly handsome look was beyond sexy, which was a definite plus! Secondly, they played down his less appealing character traits. They’re still there, just toned down. You can definitely see how Helen fell for him, at least!
All of Gilbert and Helen’s neighbors were really good. I only wish we got to see more of them! I loved Pam Ferris as Gilbert’s doting mother. I wasn’t very fond of Paloma Baeza as Hetta Carbury but that was more due to Andrew Davies’ terrible script than her acting. She was so cute in this as Gilbert’s sister, Rose. She recognized and commented on the inequality of the sexes in her household. But they weren’t the malicious gossip-spreaders. Pictured are the three major culprits, Eliza Millward, Jane Wilson, and Reverand Millward. The latter two were especially cruel in the book and I was disappointed we didn’t get to see them punished in this.
Like in the book, Gilbert ignores all the gossip that Helen is her landlord, Mr. Lawrence’s mistress. That is, until he sees the two of them talking at night and of course, misunderstands. He comes upon Lawrence and beats the crap out of him until Helen tells him the truth. I really liked James Purefoy as Mr. Lawrence, but unfortunately his part wasn’t big enough. Like the other side characters, Mr. Lawrence’s subplot and happy ending was cut for time. One thing that really bothered me too was everyone gossiping that Lawrence and Helen’s son, Arthur, resembled each other….They looked nothing alike!
Rupert Graves played the part of Arthur Huntingdon perfectly. His boyish good looks added to his charm. The guy was clearly a scoundrel even before Helen married him, but he kept charming her back to his side. Helen’s aunt tried to steer her towards a safer man, Mr. Boarham, but his name says enough about him. Graves did a good job with Huntingdon’s mood swings- one minute loving and kind, the next cruel and unfeeling. I have one big complaint about him though- his kissing. It was disgusting- loud, smacking, slurping noises for every little peck. Gross! I don’t know if he really kisses like that or it was intentional to add to the character’s depravity or whatever, but it was NOT appealing in any way!
Now we come to my main complaint about this adaptation- it’s sexed up. Really, really sexed up. You thought Andrew Davies was bad? Wait until you’ve seen this. It takes all the scenes that are in the background or hinted at in the book and brings them to the foreground. Did we need to see Helen and Arthur in bed after their wedding? Or any other times? Did we need to physically see him having an affair with Lady Lowborough? No, we did not!! The reader knows these things are going on without it being shoved in their faces, so why did they need to do that for the TV version? Especially given Rupert Graves’ gross kissing in this, it was really unnecessary! The sexiest thing by far in this version was Gilbert and he didn’t actually have any sex scenes!
While I could definitely do without all the sexed up scenes, this version isn’t afraid to be gritty in other ways, which I did appreciate to an extent. I liked the dark look with all natural lighting. I liked seeing Arthur wasting away from his alcoholism. I’ve even come to accept the birth of little Arthur, which I thought was gross at first. You don’t actually see anything but the blood after the fact. Where I draw the line, though, is the sheep giving birth. This time, you DO actually see EVERYTHING. And it’s disgusting. I guess they meant to show how Gilbert was good with animals and crap, but no, I hate that scene!
So all in all, I would recommend this version but with some reserve. It’s really only intended for slightly more mature viewers. There’s no naughty bits actually scene on screen but I wouldn’t let anyone under 13 watch it, all the same. Still, it’s mostly a well-done adaptation with good acting. It’s also the only available adaptation of Anne Bronte, so there’s really nothing else to compare it to! It actually is pretty faithful to the novel for the most part. One thing that is cut is a lot of the outcomes for the side characters. In the end, we really only find out what happens to the three main people. And…two others in a funny role reversal of the book’s ending. I understand that things have to be cut for time and maybe it would have been too cheesy to conveniently tie up everyone’s loose ends. Still, I would have liked to see what happened to the Lowboroughs, Hattersleys, Hargraves, Millwards, Wilsons, the other Markhams, and Mr. Lawrence. Wow, after seeing all the names like that, maybe it would have been overkill after all!
My Rating: 8/10